Anti-nutrients. If you haven’t heard of them yet – you will. The rumour mill has started, the gluten-free craze is still rampant but a new food fad is about to hit the headlines.
Before foods start declaring they’re ‘low in anti-nutrients’, let’s take a moment to assess whether anti-nutrients are an issue, or the next buzzword ripe for marketing hype.
Should we be seriously concerned (read – bothered) or is it just a bit of anti-nutrient marketing angst?
First, what are anti-nutrients?
In a nutshell, an anti-nutrient is a compound that interferes with the body’s absorption of certain nutrients.
You may even know anti-nutrients by another name: phytic acid. You’ll find phytic acid in foods like grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Surprisingly, most foods high in anti-nutrients (or phytic acid) are cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli and cauliflower.
The big issue around anti-nutrients, is that they bind essential minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium and inhibit their digestion in our bodies.
Are they all bad?
There’s an inherent negative association with the term ‘anti-nutrients’ but anti-nutrients are found in pretty much all plant foods.
Whilst these compounds can hinder the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, they are also the very same compounds that provide the key health benefits in those foods. Phytic acid is even known to be an anti-oxidant and anti-cancerous. It’s also know to regulate cholesterol and slow down blood sugar spikes.
Despite the name, anti-nutrients are what gives fruits and vegetables their well-documented disease-fighting, body-loving powers.
How will anti-nutrients affect me?
It depends. If you eat a balanced diet with meats and lots of cooked vegetables, then eating raw spinach or other veggies high in phytic acid shouldn’t affect you at all.
If you follow a raw food diet and eat little meat; a diet full of anti-nutrients like raw kale and broccoli could exacerbate any mineral deficiencies.
Equally, if you do a lot of exercise, this naturally increases the body’s need for vitamins and minerals, so you may want to limit your exposure to raw veggies like kale.
If you just can’t give up kale, one of the best ways of eliminating or reducing anti-nutrients is to cook them. Rather than eating veggies in their raw form (fruits contain a negligible amount of anti-nutrients), steam them. This way you’ll retain the key nutrients without worrying about any mineral deficiencies.
Should I cut them from my diet?
The truth is: it’s wrong to think of nutrients or any compounds as either good or bad. Nutrients behave in such a myriad of ways as our bodies process them that it’s impossible to give them a hero or villain status. It’s important to avoid getting bogged down in the jargon and, instead, focus on eating a well-rounded diet.
The only way we’d recommend cutting down on your phytic acid intake is if you struggle to get the nutrients your body needs anyway. If you’re struggling to eat daily portions of fruits and vegetables then this can make any mineral or vitamin deficiency worse.
Interested in nutrition? Read about the surprising truth about E numbers.